Write A Different End: How Building Community Can Take Students From Prison To College Degree
Jason Keaton hadn’t been home in almost 15 years.
The night before he was set to be released from the Lancaster state prison, his brother, Guy Witherspoon, couldn’t sleep. He sat at the foot of the bed, thinking. Keaton was scheduled to be let out sometime between 7 a.m. and noon. Witherspoon was there at 6:30 a.m.
While Keaton was incarcerated, his brother visited him as often as possible. And when Keaton mentioned that there was a chance to earn a college education, Witherspoon urged him to sign up.
Many students eventually figure out what they need to succeed in higher education, but not because they learned about it in high school, or because it was written down in any official handbook. Instead, they succeed because they uncover resources and help that exist if only you know where to look.
The students featured in our ongoing Hidden Curriculum series successfully navigated higher education while faced with particular challenges because of their background and life circumstances.
Keaton went on to earn two associates degrees through correspondence courses provided by Feather River College, a two-year institution in northern California. Then, through a partnership between the state prison in Lancaster and California State University, Los Angeles, he earned a bachelor’s degree in communications.
When he called home, Keaton would tell his brother about the books he’d read and the papers he had to write. Sometimes, he found himself having to cut the calls a bit short.
“Bro, I gotta go do homework,” he’d say. Witherspoon loved to hear it.
At an in-prison graduation ceremony last October, Witherspoon was there to see his brother cross the stage.
“It's definitely brought about a sense of pride when I talk about him,” said Witherspoon. But it’s not just about the degree, he underscored. It’s about the growth he’s seen in his brother.
Keaton and Witherspoon were raised in Compton along with their younger brother Chad. Their mother struggled with drug addiction; their grandparents took them in.
Witherspoon is 10 years older than Keaton. He tried juggling coursework at Cal State University, Long Beach, along with two jobs. He dropped out, and enlisted in the military.
Keaton was a “generally happy child,” Witherspoon said. But seeing someone you love struggle the way their mom did weighs you down, he added. He still remembers the sadness that consumed him.
In sixth grade, Keaton found his mother, lifeless. At 14, he joined a gang and made choices he’s not proud of.
In-prison bachelor’s programs are still pretty rare. CSU Los Angeles has a program at the men’s state prison in Lancaster and plans to launch a similar program at the California Institution for Women in Chino this fall.
While he was incarcerated, Chad was killed after being struck in a drive-by shooting. Keaton couldn’t attend the funeral, and he was ridden with guilt.
“I led him to believe that this lifestyle was cool, that the gang criminal lifestyle was OK. And that hit me hard,” he said. “It also made me realize that the same hurt and pain that me and my family was experiencing in the loss of life was the same thing that I caused to someone else's family.”
Keaton decided to change.
“When I rehabilitated myself,” he said, “I was able to realize that coming home wasn't just about me. It was just as much about my family, my loved ones who have made those sacrifices — emotionally, mentally, physically, financially — to do this time with me.”
He recalled that he was a "D and F student” in high school and supplied this advice for anyone who’s been incarcerated and is thinking about getting an education: “Don’t think about it too much. The more you contemplate it, the more you end up making excuses.”
“At first, I was afraid and intimidated,” he added. “But I graduated from college with high honors, and so can you.”
Keaton was 19 when he was sentenced. He was released in March 2022, at the age of 34. After driving away from Lancaster, he asked Witherspoon to take him to IHOP.
Since then, Keaton’s been hard at work as an apprentice at Careers For A Cause, a training program for people who want to help L.A.’s unhoused population.
For years, he wore the same blue outfit and everything around him was concrete. Now that he’s out, he loves to walk around the Cal State L.A. campus, taking in the sounds, scents, and colors. He’s still in touch with the educators who ran the in-prison program and regularly visits Taffany Lim, executive director of the university’s Center for Engagement, Service and the Public Good. She remains part of his support system.
Keaton’s thinking about pursuing a master’s degree, but “I need to take things one step at a time,” he said.
When he’s ready, there are resources available to those who are no longer incarcerated, along with people who are eager to help.
Navigating Higher Ed As A Formerly Incarcerated Student
The Center for Engagement, Service and the Public Good is also home to Project Rebound, a CSU program for students who’ve been incarcerated, regardless of whether they’re on or off probation or parole.
Founded at San Francisco State in 1967, the program helps prospective students navigate the admissions process, including assistance securing scholarships and other forms of financial aid, which can be challenging for people who’ve been convicted.
“People say, ‘If you have a felony, you won't qualify for financial aid. And that is not true,’” said Takisha Jernagin, a formerly incarcerated student who’s now a senior at Cal Poly Pomona.
Many of California's public colleges and universities have programs to benefit students who were formerly incarcerated.
Community Colleges: Many community colleges have programs for formerly incarcerated students that provide tutoring, financial aid support and referrals for off-campus services, like housing and employment. Some schools also have direct partnerships with local universities. Locally, programs are available at: Santa Monica College, Cerritos College, East Los Angeles College, Long Beach City College, Los Angeles Trade Tech, and Pasadena City College.
For her, one of the biggest obstacles to higher education was her probation officer, who discouraged her and said she should stick to working at a warehouse. According to Jernagin, the probation officer even threatened to put her back in jail or a halfway house if she quit her job to go to school. To get the probation officer on board, Jernagin threatened to take her to court.
She joined Project Rebound after transferring from community college, and the program has helped her cover a host of expenses, including books and parking.
“If there's something the program can't help with, they make sure to point us in the right rooms with the right people to get what we need,” Jernagin added. She’s set to graduate this spring.
The program is also open to prospective students who are in the process of transitioning out of prisons and jails. On some campuses, the children of incarcerated people can apply.
Once students are admitted, Project Rebound provides them with one-on-one tutoring; help finding on-campus employment; and staff and peer mentoring. Some campuses, like Cal State Long Beach, offer pro bono legal services to help students expunge criminal convictions.
Project Rebound is currently offered at 14 campuses across the Cal State system, but the goal is to have it at all 23, said Priscilla Terriquez, the program coordinator at Cal Poly Pomona.
The program is credited with fostering high retention rates. According to a 2021 report, 93% of Project Rebound students who entered in fall 2019 persisted into their second year, compared to 88% of students in the overall CSU population.
About 63% of Project Rebound students will be the first in their families to earn college degrees and approximately one third are parents of minors. Notably, 22% of students in the program are Black, compared to 4% in the system.
Terriquez, who is now working on a master’s degree at Cal State Long Beach, is also a formerly incarcerated student. She began her higher ed journey at Mt. San Antonio College, then transferred to Cal Poly Pomona.
“I had the greatest imposter syndrome,” she said, looking back on her first few months at the four-year university. She used to walk around campus, never feeling like she belonged.
She was afraid of being stigmatized for choices she made in the past. She also hesitated to share her story with others, hesitated to say that she was pregnant when she was arrested; that she gave birth at a teaching hospital while chained to the bed, even though two sheriff’s deputies were watching over her; that when she was in labor, with her legs propped up, a doctor had six medical students examine her without her consent; and that she was with her son for two days before she had to give him up.
While working at the campus rec center, a colleague mentioned Project Rebound, and Terriquez went to check it out. Because of her peers at in the program, Terriquez stopped feeling alone, and sometimes what’s intangible is what’s most helpful, she said. The program’s former coordinator “guided me into accepting that part of myself and owning my narrative,” Terriquez added.
Today, she works to do the same for others. To this end, she ensures that students have plenty of opportunities to socialize. In addition to traditional programming, she hosts movie nights, hiking expeditions and other recreational activities. She also opens them up to everyone on campus. Her colleagues at Cal State L.A., Cal State Long Beach and Cal State Northridge do the same. They also sponsor cross-campus events.
At Cal Poly Pomona, students in Project Rebound can also serve as mentors at juvenile detention centers. Having system-impacted mentors is invaluable, said the program’s executive director Renford Reese. The youth — who are between the ages of 16 and 25 — get guidance from someone who can relate to what they’re going through. In turn, formerly incarcerated students find that sharing their lived experiences can help others.
That’s true for Keaton, whose goal is to become a social worker.
When Keaton was incarcerated and working on his bachelor’s degree, his English professor, Bidhan Chandra Roy, reiterated that “writing is never done.” Keaton applied the phrase beyond his coursework.
With his brother’s help, he self-published two books while he was incarcerated and is now at work on two more. He loves to write, loves that “you can go back in there, strengthen up those paragraphs, write a different end.”
After more than a decade behind bars, that’s what he wants most.